The General Duty
by Chris E. Marsh, M.Ed.
You may remember that in the summer of 2011 there were several incidents of heat-related illness, including death, in the agriculture industry in the U.S. The cases that resulted in death, mostly field workers, were mentioned on national news. Football, from pro down to the youngest leagues has this problem every year, as do other industries besides farming.
OSHA becomes involved anytime an employer has a case where one employee dies or three or more employees must receive medical treatment, usually at a hospital. Heat problems always result in a fine, and anytime there is a death, there is also the possibility of a criminal trial and prison time. You may not find a clause or section that specifically covers heat problems at osha.gov. OSHA does not have this clause. However, the General Duty Clause does cover unsafe conditions such as excessive heat.
Section 5(a)(1) (The General Duty Clause) of the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 provides for OSHA protection if no regulation exists for a safety or health problem. It says that the employer knew or should have known that an act or condition was potentially hazardous to human health, and if the employer does not correct the hazard they will be cited under the General Duty Clause. (Of course, the language is more detailed than that.) If you do have an incident of death or three or more employees removed for medical treatment, you are required by OSHA to call either a regional office or the national office in Washington, D.C. (1-800-OSHA).
As a final note on the General Duty Clause, California OSHA (CAL/OSHA) has cited two farm labor contractors in the death of field workers in that state in the summer of 2011. CAL/OSHA used the equivalent of OSHA's General Duty Clause.
Symptoms and first aid for heat stress and illness
Three types of heat stress/illness will be discussed. You should be aware that this is not an all-inclusive list of heat problems and not doctor-approved course of first aid. However, in completing research for this section concerning heat, these were prevalent and mentioned in all the research done.
The three types of heat stress are: heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Heat cramps usually affect workers who sweat a lot during strenuous activity. This sweating depletes the body's salt and moisture levels. Low salt levels in muscles cause painful cramps. (Anyone who pays attention to football can, most likely, recall seeing any level of football player being affected with cramps. This usually occurs during practice in the heat of summer or in early games.) Heat cramps may also be a symptom of heat exhaustion. The major symptoms are muscle pain or spasms, usually in the abdomen, arms or legs.
First aid for heat cramps means the worker should: stop all activity; drink clear juice or a sports beverage; not return to strenuous work for a few hours after the cramps subside because further exertion may lead to worse heat problems; a worker should seek medical attention (at least call 911) if they have heart problems, are on a low-sodium diet, or the cramps do not go away within one hour.
Heat exhaustion is the body's response to an excessive loss of water and salt, usually through excessive sweating. Workers most prone to heat exhaustion are those that are older, have high blood pressure, and those working in a hot environment. (These are not the only workers that may be affected.) The main symptoms of heat exhaustion include: heavy sweating; extreme weakness or fatigue; dizziness or confusion; nausea; clammy, moist skin; pale or flushed complexion; muscle cramps; slightly elevated body temperature; and fast and shallow breathing.
Remember that there may be other symptoms not mentioned here. Any abnormality in the worker's regular pattern of work should be checked on.
First aid for heat exhaustion is much like the recommendations for cramps. The worker should: rest in a cool, shaded or, if available, air-conditioned area; drink plenty of water or other cool, nonalcoholic beverages (generally one of the many sports beverages would be better than sodas or other types of refreshment); and take a cool shower, bath or sponge bath. If necessary, use any available water source to help them cool off. You may want to make it a permanent part of the heat exhaustion plan to always call 911.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related problem. It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature. The person's temperature rises rapidly, they stop sweating (a specific danger sign for heat stroke), and the body is unable to cool down. When heat stroke occurs, the body temperature can reach 106 degrees Fahrenheit or more in 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not given as soon as possible. (Another good reason to have several people trained in first aid.) Needless to say, 911 should be called immediately.
Symptoms of heat stroke include: hot, dry skin or profuse, heavy sweating; hallucinations; chills; throbbing headache; high body temperature; confusion or dizziness (if someone talks, but what they say does not apply to a conversation or their answers are not clear this is another strong danger sign); slurred speech.
First aid for someone you suspect is having a heat stroke should be administered immediately.
The first step, call 911 and inform the supervisor. Move the worker to a cool shaded area and spray, sponge or shower them with water to soak their clothes. Have someone fan them in order to cool them down.
Remember that these are not the only types of heat stress that can affect your workers. You owe it to them to do everything possible to prevent heat problems, but you owe it to yourself to make sure everyone is trained and you have a plan in place if this occurs in your operation.
NOAA'S Heat Index Chart
To find the Heat Index temperature, look at the Heat Index chart below. As an example, if the air temperature is 96 degrees Fahrenheit and the relative humidity is 65 percent, the heat index-how hot it feels-is 121 degrees Fahrenheit. The Weather Service will initiate alert procedures when the Heat Index is expected to exceed 105 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on local climate) for at least two consecutive days.
The following information is most important in regard to heat illness. It is recommended you go to the OSHA site listed or another U.S. government site and copy this chart or one like it. You should have it laminated or otherwise protected so all supervisors and team leaders can have access.
Note: Since heat index values were devised for shady, light wind conditions, exposure to full sunshine can increase heat index values by up to 15 degrees Fahrenheit; also, strong winds, particularly with very hot, dry air, can be extremely hazardous.
The Heat Index Chart shaded zone above 105 degrees Fahrenheit shows a level that may cause increasingly severe heat disorders with continued exposure or physical activity.
Chris E. Marsh, M.Ed. operates Brandywine Farms and Ogeechee Training Service in Statesboro, Ga. The farm operation is mostly vegetables with the intention of planting more nut trees and fruits and berries. He is an OSHA authorized outreach trainer and part of his outreach is writing articles about OSHA in addition to providing on site health and safety training. He can be reached at 912-865-4500 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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